warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Prop 35. Raises The Stakes On Human Trafficking

Danielle Tarasiuk, Graham Clark |
September 17, 2012 | 9:50 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporters

Arguments against Proposition 35, a measure targeting sex trafficking, have been leveled quietly. Opposing harsh prosecution for human traffickers is not a popular movement.

Only a few groups came forth to contest the piece at a hearing on Aug 18. Gripes with the document came from the ACLU, alleging that Prop. 35 intrudes on constitutionally protected anonymous Internet use. Along with Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, Inc. they claimed that better policy design instead would better improve conditions in California.

Only ten days later, the organized resolve behind this resistance had petered out. Prop. 35 was voted to be on the ballot in November’s election unanimously with no formal protest.

Lesford Duncan makes his living as an advocate for girls and young women forcefully sold into prostitution. He’s the Los Angeles County Coordinator for California Against Slavery, an organization that helped co-author Prop. 35. The bill is leveled at increasing punishments for human traffickers as well as reshaping prosecution of prostitution, particularly child prostitution.

With November just a few short months away Duncan seems exhausted. His work, rather his cause, is constantly buzzing in his head. But he just won’t stop, passing off a stack of material advocating Prop. 35 before rushing back to his office.


Full Q&A with Lesford Duncan, Los Angeles County Coordinator for California Against Slavery

Reporting by Danielle Tarasiuk

It is my understanding that California Against Slavery helped write Prop. 35. What does Prop. 35 entail? And what would be the end result if it is passed?

The key points of Prop. 35 is to increase penalties against traffickers and to increase jail time. Right now as the law stands traffickers get about five to seven years in prison, so we are trying to increase that to 15 years to life. We are also seeking to impose fines on these traffickers as well, upwards of $1.5 million per convicted trafficker, and then those fines would in turn be used to provide more services for girls who are victims of human trafficking. What it also does is hold traffickers accountable by forcing them to register as sex offenders, which they are, and rightfully to disclose all of their online accounts, such as social media networks and whatnot. The last part of Prop. 35 also requires that every law officer within the state of California receive at least two hours of training on  human trafficking, so that they are aware of the issue and how to properly identify it, and how to properly respond to victims.

What do you hope to achieve if Prop. 35 does pass?

I would say our greatest hope is to raise awareness about domestic human trafficking. A lot of people we encounter on a day to day basis have some idea of what human trafficking is, but they usually don’t know that it is a domestic issue. They see it more as an international issue, something that is happening abroad, that is happening in Thailand, southeast Asia, eastern Europe, but we are trying to bring awareness to the issue here. We are also trying to change the mind set—a lot of people when driving down the street and encounter a sex worker look at them as less then, or they look at them as someone who has made a choice to entire into that lifestyle. We are trying to change the mindset to have people  look at them as victims, victims of abuse, victims of a crime, rather than criminals, especially when a lot of the victims are minors and under the age of 18. Statistics even show that the average age of entering into trafficking for a child is between the ages of 12 to 14.

According to the California Department of Justice between that 2009-2010 65,000 children entered the sex trade, but only 13 people were arrested. I find it hard to believe that these were the only 13 people responsible. How did so many of these criminals fall through the cracks? And why has it taken so long to start reform and new legal actions?

I personally can’t confirm those statistics, I haven’t seen those, but that does sound about right, it does sound about accurate. I would say that  the reason why we aren’t prosecuting enough is because it’s very difficult to find the traffickers, who in many cases are street level pimps. It’s very difficult to not necessarily find them, but to convict them of the crime. And it’s very difficult to get the victims to testify because they are under the threat of violence. So again, it is very difficult to get them to testify against their pimps and to really prosecute them, I would say that is our biggest dilemma. Part of what the CASE Act (Prop. 35) does, is it removes the blame from the victim so that the victim feels safer in testifying and what it again also puts away the traffickers for a longer period of time which, would hopefully make victims feel more comfortable in testifying against their pimp or trafficker.

As the law stands right now, if these children and often times young women are caught, are they prosecuted as well?

Yes, as the law stands right now many of these victims, again many them being children ages 15, 16, some as young as 10 or 11 are being arrested, and arrested for various reason. Some officers arrest them because they believe that they are committing a crime, other officers arrest them for the sake of the holding them or keeping them safe or keeping them out of harms way. However, we as California Against Slavery disagree with that action, we believe that they shouldn’t be arrested, they should be treated as victims and cared for appropriately.

Do you think that this is an issue right now in trying to stop these pimps, that these girls are not only scared of violence against them, but they are also scared of going to jail and being prosecuted?

Absolutely. We call this a form of modern day slavery because these girls are not always shackled or physically in bondage but mentally enslaved. They have pimps or traffickers that tell them that:  'I’m the only safety net that they know of, at least I will feed you, provide you food, get your nails done, I’ll buy you McDonald’s,' and then they also tell them that they 'can’t report me to anyone because if you do they are going to take you away, they are going to lock you up,' and sure enough when these girls are caught they are locked up. In essence, our system is showing the pimp as being right and if (we) currently have a system where victims feel like they can’t talk, or say anything, or report anything to appropriate officials, then how are we going to break this cycle?

L.A., especially South L.A., is considered as a hub for child trafficking. Why South L.A. verses other cities across the US? What makes California, and in particular L.A. so attractive to child traffickers?

I can definitely confirm that for sure L.A. does have some of the highest rates of trafficking, both international trafficking and domestic trafficking. Internal trafficking because it is a major hub of international travel, especially from Asia coming into LAX airport and Ontario airport. It is also very close to the Mexican boarder and there is a lot of trafficking that happens there, not to be confused with smuggling. Also, it is a hot bed for domestic trafficking because, well, it’s no secret that there is a lot of poverty here within Los Angeles and that’s what traffickers exploit the most. They exploit girls who are in impoverished situations or girls who are coming from broken homes, girls that are in the system, girls that are in group homes or shelters. And that’s what really makes LA a prime area for trafficking.

According to a report by National Gang Intelligence Center, child trafficking is becoming more popular as a way to supplement gangs’ income. Often times gangs are decreasing drug sales and increasing child trafficking because it’s easier and they have less of a risk of getting caught. Have you seen an increase now verses five or 10 years ago?

Statics show that human trafficking is the second largest illegal industry in the world, second to only drug trafficking. And you’re right, gangs and organized crime are looking more towards human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of young girls to supplement their income. They consider these girls as a renewable resource, they are able to sell a  girl multiple times, where they are only able to sell drugs one time and make a quick sell. Many of these gangs and many of these pimps make thousands, hundred of thousands off of these girls by forcing them to work day in and day out, and setting quotas of a thousand or maybe even more for these girls to go out and make and then they take all of it. Human trafficking is increasing again because of the demand for it, there is a greater demand nowadays for younger girls within the human trafficking industry. There are a lot of reasons for that, these organized crime members, these gangs they’re definitely taking advantage of that aspect of the industry.

As someone who works particularly in L.A., and deals with what is going on here, locally, is there something you would like to speak to that is uniquely for L.A. or South L.A.? Is there something in L.A. and in California that makes it a little bit different from the rest of the country?

I would say human trafficking definitely looks different in L.A. and it looks different in every city that you go to. One of the things that I’ve noticed particularly about trafficking here in L.A. is that it does tend to happen more so to minorities. It does tend to effect the Black and Hispanic communities more so than in other counties or in other areas of the United States. And then again, I would say that L.A. has some of the highest rates of human trafficking just by the nature of the set up--it’s a city that has a very urban environment, so you have a lot of poverty, you have a lot of the push factors that push these girls into trafficking.

What about trying to go after the people who buy these girls, who are the ones that keep these pimps in business?

Our specific policy, Prop. 35, doesn’t specially tackle that aspect of the issue, but we are looking though to effect policy change that will target the demand side of it. I personally believe that if we don’t target the demand side of this issue we are not going to stop it. As long as there is a demand for something, anything, whatever it may be, there will always be those there who will always want to supply that demand.


Click here for full Proposition coverage.

Reach Staff Reporter Graham Clark here and Danielle Tarasiuk here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.